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Even as ACC tourney returns to Charlotte, its future in NC remains unsettled

In the 64-year history of the ACC men’s basketball tournament, North Carolina has hosted 50 times. On Tuesday, the tournament returns to Charlotte for the first time in 11 years.

The tournament has ventured outside North Carolina in recent years, from Florida to New York, as the conference has added schools. ACC officials and backers in those new locations tout the move as good for the conference, but some longtime ACC fans in North Carolina say the tournament’s roots are here and that it should stay here.

Richard Vinroot, the former Charlotte mayor who played basketball at UNC under longtime coach Dean Smith, said the tournament ought to be played more in Charlotte, the tournament’s geographic center that sits midway between Boston and Miami. The Spectrum Center is walkable to restaurants and hotels, Vinroot noted, and the airport is the best in the region.

“It makes sense to have it in Charlotte,” Vinroot said. “I’m delighted it’s back here, and I’d like for it to be here on a more regular basis.”

College basketball fervor is part of North Carolina’s culture. Charlotte, home to the only NBA team in the Carolinas, is a short drive away from UNC and Duke, one of the most iconic pairs of rivals in college sports. As the ACC looks to expand its brand outside North Carolina, however, it’s unclear how often Charlotte and other N.C. cities will host the popular event in the future.

The Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., hosted the ACC Tournament in 2016. Starting in 2017, the tournament was held at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., for a two-year run, marking the first time the event took place in New York. The tournament returns to Greensboro, home of the ACC headquarters, in 2020, then goes back to Washington, D.C., in 2021 and Brooklyn in 2022.

The ACC hasn’t selected host sites for 2023 and beyond.

“The ACC used to historically focus on and represent very proudly that they wanted the attention in a market where they were the big Super Bowl event,” said Matt Brown, managing director of the Greensboro Coliseum, where the tournament has been held 26 times.

Brown has been with the coliseum since 1994, and has helped it host 12 ACC men’s tournaments and 17 women’s tournaments.

When an ACC tournament comes to Greensboro, it’s the main event in town during the week, Brown said. That’s not the case in New York or Washington, which both routinely host large-scale events and are home to multiple major-league sports teams, dozens of Fortune 500 companies and more.

“We’ve come to accept that the ACC we all grew up with is different in its scope. There are quite a few teams outside the state of North Carolina now,” Brown said.

Today, the ACC has 15 schools in 10 states, meaning its geographic footprint is much larger than it was decades ago. Boston College joined the ACC in 2005. Notre Dame, Syracuse and Pittsburgh joined in 2013, and Louisville joined in 2014.

Those schools have significant fan bases in New York, making a place like Brooklyn attractive for the conference.

ACC Commissioner John Swofford told the Observer in a recent interview the ACC tournament has been “extremely successful” in cities outside North Carolina that have hosted in recent years.

”The rotation of touching various parts of the conference’s footprint is important to the league and its future for a lot of reasons,” Swofford said. “My guess is you’ll see a similar path of rotation in the future as what we’re in now.”

Still, for Vinroot and other local fans, hosting the tournament in North Carolina is preferred. Vinroot said it disturbs him to watch TV coverage of the tournament in Washington, Tampa or Brooklyn and see aisles of empty seats.

“That makes no sense at all,” he said. “This thing will be packed here (in Charlotte).”

New York connections

Like other large cities, New York offers high-profile promotional opportunities for the ACC. Last year, for instance, ACC schools’ mascots visited the New York Stock Exchange and “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” to celebrate the games.

“(Brooklyn) has given us some business opportunities and connections we might well not have had,” Swofford told the AP in March 2018.

Also during the 2018 tournament, 18,157 fans packed into the Barclays Center to watch UNC beat Duke 74-69, marking the highest-attended college basketball game at the arena since it opened in 2012.

Barclays Center, the home of the Brooklyn Nets, was always intended to be a destination for college basketball, according to Brett Yormark, CEO of Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, which manages and controls the Nets and the arena.

Most ACC schools have significant fan bases in New York, Yormark said, citing Syracuse, Virginia and Notre Dame. Hosting the tournament in New York is also important for ACC schools for recruiting purposes, he added.

“I give kudos to the commissioner for having the foresight to take the tournament out of its home market from time to time. I think it’s a nice balance,” Yormark said.

But, he added: “You never can alienate your core fan base. The ACC will always have a home in North Carolina.”

Tobacco Road history

The ACC was born in Raleigh under legendary N.C. State coach Everett Case. N.C. State beat Wake Forest in the first ACC tournament in 1954 at Reynolds Coliseum, which was recently given a $35 million makeover and turned into a modern museum, according to a September 2016 story in the Raleigh News & Observer.

Raleigh, Greensboro and Charlotte alternated hosting the tournament for its first 22 years. Its first move out of North Carolina, in 1976, was to Maryland and was driven by a desire to appease other schools.

In 1974, after Maryland lost the tournament to N.C. State 103-100 in overtime in Greensboro, N.C. State took an excruciatingly long time cutting down the net, infuriating Maryland head coach Lefty Driesell, according to a March 1976 Observer story.

Driesell “demanded more consideration from the ACC” in regard to the host site of the tournament.

“It is a major reason the tournament has shifted to Capital Centre (in Landover, Md.),” the Observer story read. “Maryland was tired of traveling to unfriendly territory each season.”

Maryland left the ACC in 2014.

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Fans are scattered throughout the seats in the lower level of the Greensboro Coliseum during the first half of a quarterfinal NCAA college basketball game between Virginia and Florida State at the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C., in March 2014. Bob Leverone AP

Charlotte’s ACC future

Charlotte, contracted to host the ACC title football game through 2030, has hosted the ACC men’s basketball tournament a dozen times. The first time was at the old Charlotte Coliseum (now Bojangles’ Coliseum) in 1968 and most recently was at Time Warner Cable Arena (now the Spectrum Center.)

When the tournament was last held here in 2008, the five-day event had an estimated economic impact of $17.22 million, according to the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, the city’s tourism arm. (The ACC Tournament had an economic impact of nearly $25 million when it was held in Greensboro in 2015, according to the Greensboro Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.)

The ACC is still a ways off from naming host sites for 2023 and beyond, Swofford has said.

But Charlotte is going to bid for every opportunity it can to host, according to Fred Whitfield, president of the Charlotte Hornets. The Hornets manage programming at the Spectrum Center, where the ACC tournament will be held.

Charlotte’s bid for future tournaments will be a coordinated effort between the city, the CRVA, the Hornets and the Charlotte Sports Foundation.

With high-profile events like the NBA All-Star Game last month, and the Democratic National Convention in 2012, Charlotte has demonstrated that it can host large-scale events, Whitfield said.

Additionally, upgrades to the Spectrum Center, such as the massive new state-of-the-art scoreboard, give Charlotte an edge, as does the fact that the uptown corridor boasts many more hotels, bars and restaurants than it had in 2008, Whitfield said.

The ACC Tournament is the kind of event that if executed successfully in Charlotte, allows the city to bid for other large events, such as the NCAA regionals, Whitfield said.

“We appreciate that the ACC is one of the premier conferences in all of college athletics,” Whitfield said. “If we do our job then hopefully that will convince others ... that Charlotte is a destination they should consider.”

Staff writers Scott Fowler and Mike Gordon contributed.


Correction

A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the year of the N.C. State defeat of Maryland in the ACC Tournament. The game took place in 1974.
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As the retail and sports business reporter for the Observer, Katie Peralta covers everything from grocery-store competition in Charlotte to tax breaks for pro sports teams. She is a Chicago native and graduate of the University of Notre Dame.
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